California’s transportation system is in trouble. Commuters waste time stuck in traffic, rising gasoline prices are draining consumers’ pocketbooks, and our cars and trucks produce too much pollution that contributes to global warming.
Public transportation makes a vital contribution to California’s transportation system, providing an alternative to drivers tired of fighting congestion, reducing our dependence on oil, and curbing pollution. However, in many communities around the state, transit systems are inadequate and cannot keep pace with demand.
The problems of our current automobile-dominated transportation system will not be solved without a concerted effort to expand transit. California must plan for a transportation system that meets the needs of the 21st century and invest in important projects to improve public transportation.
California residents drive more miles, spend more on gasoline, experience more congestion, and produce more global warming pollution from transportation than they did a decade ago.
• Vehicle travel on California’s roads increased by approximately 19 percent from 1995 to 2005. The number of vehicle miles traveled per person in the state increased by 5 percent over that same period of time.
• Californians lose millions of hours sitting in traffic. In 2005, Californians in nine urban areas spent 871 million hours in traffic delays, a 38 percent increase from 1995.
• California residents spent approximately $17.4 billion more on gasoline in 2005 than they did in 1995, a product of more miles being driven and higher gasoline prices, even after adjustments for inflation.
• Transportation is the leading source of global warming pollution in California, with cars and trucks the biggest contributors to the problem. California’s transportation system produced 24 percent more carbon dioxide in 2005 than it did in 1990.
Public transportation helps to address California’s transportation, energy and environmental challenges.
• Public transportation prevented more than 70 million hours of traffic delay in nine California metropolitan areas in 2005, preventing the economy from losing more than $1.2 billion in wasted time and productivity.
• In 2006, public transportation in California saved approximately 486 million gallons of oil that would have otherwise been burned in vehicles, saving consumers more than $1.3 billion at the pump.
• In addition, public transportation is helping to reduce global warming pollution in the state, averting about 3.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution in 2006
• Despite these clear benefits of transit in 2006, California spent approximately $374 million of state transportation funds on transit for capital and operating expenses and $4.6 billion on highway construction and maintenance—a highway-to-transit spending ratio of more than 12-to-1.
California has recently committed to several projects that can provide the beginnings of a 21st century transportation system.
• High-speed rail linking northern and southern California is expected to serve tens of millions of passengers annually, providing a fast and reliable travel alternative to flying or driving between major urban areas.
• North of the Bay Area, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit project will build a 70-mile passenger rail line on publicly owned right-of-way, giving travelers an alternative to congested Highway 101.
• Passage of Measure R in Los Angeles County will help to expand rail service and improve bus options. Some key projects to implement quickly are:
• Subway service along Wilshire Boulevard through the Westside to serve an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 passengers, saving as much as 60,000 hours of travel time each
• Construction of a downtown transit hub to improve connectivity between Los Angeles’ existing rail lines as well as the Gold Line extension that is in progress.
• Establishment of bus rapid transit service to help connect far flung neighborhoods with speedy, convenient buses that travel in dedicated bus lanes.
But, these new transit projects barely scratch the surface of California’s transit needs. There are dozens of worthy public transit improvements that would offer Californians better alternatives to the high cost of driving, reduce congestion by removing cars from the road, save oil, and reduce pollution. Among the most promising and important projects are the following:
• In San Diego, an 11-mile expansion of the San Diego Trolley would provide an alternative to heavily traveled I-5 north of the city and is an important component of the broader transit expansions envisioned for the region.
• A downtown transit center in Anaheim would facilitate increasedridership on both Metrolink’s rail service and connecting transit services for Orange County.
• Construction of the Perris Valley Line in Riverside County would extend commuter rail service from Riverside to additional employment and population centers.
• Bay Area residents would benefit from several promising projects:
• Establishment of bus rapid transit service on Van Ness Avenue in downtown San Francisco would reduce travel times by 24 to 30 percent compared to existing bus
• Creating a separate lane for bus rapid transit along San Francisco’s Geary Boulevard would provide bus travelers on the route a large improvement in travel times and service reliability.
• On the east side of the Bay, bus rapid transit from San Leandro to Berkeley would draw 76 percent more riders than current bus service, while providing a shorter trip.
• Construction of the Transbay Terminal, including the extension of Caltrain to the new terminal in downtown San Francisco, would connect service provided by nine
transit agencies serving eight counties, enabling commuters and other travelers to reach their destinations more readily without driving.
• Rail service from San Jose to San Francisco could become faster and more frequent by upgrading Caltrain infrastructure and locomotives to operate on electricity instead of diesel fuel.
• Light rail expansions in the Sacramento area would help to ease the impacts of the region’s rapidly growing population. New service north to the airport and south to residential areas would help meet the region’s surging travel needs.
• Transit systems across the state could improve their existing bus and rail offerings at a relatively low cost through operations, technology and equipment changes that would allow for faster, more comfortable, and more reliable service.
To build a 21st century transportation system that will ease congestion, reduce spending on gasoline, and help the state meet its global warming pollution reduction goals, California should do the following:
• Prioritize funding for transit projects. State, county and local governments must provide stable funding for bus and rail service. The legislature and governor should not divert public transportation funds to other purposes.
• California officials should support a revamped federal transportation funding law that makes a large investment in needed improvements to transit systems and intercity rail, while focusing federal highway investment on the need to maintain and repair existing infrastructure.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her son.
Vice President and Senior Director of State Offices, The Public Interest Network
Emily is the senior director for state organizations for The Public Interest Network. She works nationwide with the state group directors for PIRG and Environment America to help them build stronger organizations and achieve greater success. Emily was the executive director for CALPIRG from 2009-2021, overseeing a myriad of CALPIRG campaigns to protect public health, protect consumers in the marketplace, and promote a robust democracy. Emily works in our Oakland, California, office, and loves camping, hiking, gardening and cooking with her family.